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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Jared begins his solo series on Jonah by taking a closer look at its genre and themes as he explores the following questions:

  • Why is the book of Jonah personally significant for Jared?
  • Why is asking about the historicity of Jonah a bad question? 
  • What are some of the major themes of Jonah?
  • What makes Jonah a unique biblical book?
  • What are some significant literary features of Jonah?
  • Why is it important for some people to read Jonah as historical?
  • What did Jesus have to say about Jonah?
  • When was Jonah written and how do we know?
  • Where else is Jonah mentioned in the Bible?
  • How does the book of Amos relate to Jonah?
  • Why is it significant that Jonah calls himself a “Hebrew”?
  • Why would the story of Jonah been upsetting to its original readers?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jared you can share. 

  • “[Jonah] plays off of what people would have expected from other prophetic books, and that’s what makes it satire.” @jbyas
  • “If we spend our time trying to prove that it is historically accurate or trying to prove how big our faith is by proving that a fish can swallow a grown man, my worry or my concern is that we actually miss the point of the book.” @jbyas
  • “To respect biblical books, we have to ask what kind of book it is.” @jbyas
  • “I don’t think… it matters one way or the other if you think the story actually took place or not, as long as you recognize that the value of the book isn’t about its historicity, but it’s in the message it’s trying to tell through this humorous, critical account of this character named Jonah.” @jbyas
  • “The point of fiction is to relate to our real lives in profound ways.” @jbyas
  • “What does God’s kindness mean and how does it relate to justice?” @jbyas
  • “[Jonah] highlights some of the unhelpful practices that some Christians have when they read their Bibles.” @jbyas

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript [Introduction]


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Hey everybody. This episode is going to be a solo podcast by me, and it’s actually going to be the first part in a series. I was inspired by Pete doing “Pete Ruins Exodus,” and that’s Pete’s gig. He ruins books. But, I’m gonna call this “Rediscovering Jonah.” We’re gonna do a series on the book of Jonah, do a deep dive here, and it will be a handful of episodes. I don’t exactly know how long it will be. But it will be longer than, for those of you who have been listening to the podcast from the beginning, the first episode I did on Jonah. So, I’d ask those of you who have heard that to bear with me. There will be some overlap here in the first episode, but I want you to do like I tell my kids to do about the Rocky series. We’re just gonna treat it like it never happened, like we do with Rocky V, right? We just go from IV to Rocky Balboa; we just pretend that V never happened.  So, I would encourage you to do that. There will be more here than even the first episode, there will be more, even in this episode, and then we’ll just go from there.

So, we’re going to take this first one here to talk about the big picture of the book. What kind of book is it, and tackle that one question that everyone asks, we gotta get it out of the way at the front is – is Jonah historically accurate – and I’m gonna talk about why that’s a bad question. And, of course, that’s what we’re gonna do. But then, in subsequent episodes, again, a handful – one, two, three – I’m not sure. We’re gonna do a deeper dive into each one of the chapters and draw out some of the richer themes about this beautifully written, wonderful messaged book called the book of Jonah. And we’ll just take it as it comes.

So, just to set us up, I want to talk about the few reasons why I really like the book of Jonah and thought it was worth doing a series on. So, first, it’s personally significant for me. So, when I was a pastor, I shared this in that other episode, this was a significant book for me to get through my transition. So, you know, it’s one thing to go through a deconstruction, period. I just would say it has an added layer of challenge when your paycheck depends on you not changing your mind about the Bible and what it is. And so, it was a particularly difficult time for me of how do I wrestle with being true to myself and the questions that I was asking, while also wanting to not damage anyone’s faith and not bring the congregation kicking and screaming along with me in my journey, but letting them, respecting their journey and their stories, while also wanting to be truthful about where I was, and also be honest about what I was seeing in the text of the Bible. So, it was a really confusing and challenging time for me, and the book of Jonah was one that I really grappled with during that time, resonated with, and connected with in addition to the book of Ecclesiastes was also a real help for me in that time. So, it’s personally significant. So, I have this heart for the book of Jonah.

But not just that, not just personally, but I think also critically, it highlights some of the unhelpful practices that some Christians have when they read their Bibles. And we’ll talk about some of that. Some of that today, and some of that throughout this book.

And thirdly, it’s small enough to get our hands around and yet touches on some of the themes we find throughout the Bible. So, I think it’s a really good book to focus on for a little bit to talk about things like repentance, and what does it mean to be God’s people, and some of these bigger themes, theological themes that we find throughout the Bible and maybe there’s some relevancy for us, but really want to highlight and talk about and focus on the book itself. So, this is The Bible for Normal People after all.

So again, we’ll start with the big picture, kinda what is the book about, then we’ll dive into each chapter from there and talk about some of the central themes and points. Of course, we won’t get into everything because as small as this book is, which in English Bibles, it’s a few pages. It’s only four chapters, it doesn’t take up much room at all. You’d be amazed at the amount of articles and full books, scholarly books, written on just this book. There is a lot that we could cover, but it does really get into the weeds. We move out of Bible for Normal People and into Bible for nerds pretty quickly, so we’ll try to avoid that.  But I do want to go into some more detail throughout the series.


So, let’s start with this. What kind of book is Jonah? Jonah, I’m gonna argue, is a satire or maybe a satirical parable is a better way of saying it. It’s stylized fiction with a theological point. Now, it’s important that we start with what kind of book Jonah is because as one of my old professors used to say all the time – that genre triggers reading strategy. All that means is we have to figure out what kind of book it is first so that we know how to read the book. So, genre matters. And that’s important because there’s a debate in the book of Jonah, or on the book of Jonah between people, especially in more lay-circles and pastoral circles on whether Jonah is historically accurate book or not, or is it a different kind of genre that’s less focused on history? And of course, I’m gonna say it’s less focused on history. It’s not trying to argue in historically accurate ways. That’s not the point of the book. It has a theological point, and there’s some stylized fiction that is a lot of reasons why I’m gonna argue that it’s satire.

So, let’s go through some of these reasons. First, if we compare it to other prophets, we see some stark differences, right? So, and if you look in your Bibles, the book of Jonah is right smack there in what’s called the book of the twelve. It’s the minor prophets is another name for them, and they name those books tend to name the kings, the historical situation, kind of situate it in historical, with historical details. But with Jonah, all that’s left out. It’s almost like trying to be this universalizable fairy tale. In some ways, it reads like the book of Job. So, if you read Job, there’s not a lot of context clues for when it’s written, where it’s written, you know there’s, it doesn’t necessarily even situate it in Israel, so Israel isn’t even mentioned in the book of Jonah. So, there’s a sense of universality to it. No names, there’s no dates, but it does have a lot of narrative details. It describes things in unique ways, in very colorful ways, in very stylized ways. So, that’s one reason. When we compare it to the other prophets, it leads us to think this isn’t the same kind of book.

It also ignores the strange relationship between Assyria and Israel. And if you read other prophetic books, Amos, Joel, those around Jonah, you’ll see there is a direct connection between the sinfulness of Israel and these foreign nations who are going to be agents of God’s judgement and we don’t get any of that in the book of Jonah. There’s not even a mention of Assyria as a people group. We have Nineveh, which is a city, and interestingly enough, which it points another reason why it may not be helpful to read it as historically accurate, is Nineveh is said to have a king, but cities usually don’t have kings. States, nation states, meaning countries – they have kings. But in this story, Nineveh, the city, has a king. And the king is not named, it’s just the king of Nineveh.

And then another reason if we compare it to the other prophets that we find, other minor prophet books, the book of the twelve, are largely poetic in style. So, if you read in your Bible, you’ll see a lot of formatting that looks like poetry. And Jonah is largely gonna be narrative, it’s gonna be a story. And another example of this, when we compare it to the prophets, is that the other minor prophets are filled with God’s words to the people, and so the prophet is a messenger of this message. But Jonah is largely devoid of God’s words. We actually only have four instances of God speaking. All of them, actually, are to Jonah. We don’t actually have the message that God wanted Jonah to share directly from God, which is very different, than again, if you read the books around Jonah in your Bible, you’ll see the message from the Lord, and then it gives the message that the prophet is presumably sharing to the people. But we don’t have this here.


We have four instances of God speaking in general, and they’re actually all to Jonah. In verse two of chapter one, God says to “go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” And then in chapter three, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time, after, you know, he goes through the whole fish ordeal. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” But we don’t actually hear from God’s mouth what that message is. All we hear is in chapter three, verse four, Jonah giving this message – “forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. And then in chapter four, we have a dialog between Jonah and God, and God says, “is it right for you to be angry?” And then a few verses later, asks again, “is it right for you to be angry?” And then we have this little commentary from God. This is the longest speaking gig that God gets in the book of Jonah. The Lord says, “you have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?” So, God does get the last word. Those are the final words of the book, but that’s really all that we have in the book. It just reads very differently than the other prophets.

So, why is it in with the prophets is a good question. Well, in some ways it still is prophetic narrative. If you read the stories of say, Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 5, you’ll see some similarities in this. And remember, in the Jewish Bible, we think of Samuel and Kings and historical books in Christianity. But for Judaism, they’re actually part of the prophetic corpus. They’re part of the prophet books. They’re actually called the former prophets because they focus on Elijah and Elisha the prophets and others around the Kings. So, just remember, in the Jewish way of organizing the books, the narratives of Elijah and Elisha would actually be prophet as well because they’re about the prophet. And that’s what Jonah is more, it’s about the prophet. So, at the very least, it plays off of what people would have expected from other prophetic books, and that’s what makes it satire. So, satire is taking a form that we would recognize and turning it on its head. In a lot of ways, this is prophetic satire.

So, it starts out the same way as most of the prophetic books. The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai. That’s the common context clue, or genre clue, for being prophetic. But then, the very next statement makes us think that something else is going on, because Jonah arises and we think he’s gonna go do what God has asked him to do, but he doesn’t. He runs away. So now we know something is up. This is where the satirical clues begin, right? We start the way we expect, but then by the second verse, we know something is awry. In this way, you know, in a lot of ways actually, Jonah is painted as the anti-prophet.

So, if we look at, say, the book of Hosea, which is there right around the book of Jonah in our Bibles, the word of the Lord comes to Hosea, go marry a prostitute, chapter one. And he does it without question! And so, Hosea goes and marries this prostitute, you know. Name your, and then later, go to your wayward wife who has committed adultery, and be there for her, reengage with her, have some reconciliation with her, and he does. So, we have this contrast, even with the book of Hosea, and I pick that because those are some extreme examples of what God would require of a prophet, just to get the message across to God’s people. And Hosea just does it right away. And then Jonah, all Jonah is asked to do is to go and proclaim this message to Assyria, essentially, to Nineveh, and he runs away.

Now, we’re not sure why at this point. Maybe, for those who would be reading this story, and we’ll talk a little bit about the date of this, they would have in mind, well of course Jonah wouldn’t want to go to Nineveh, because the Assyrians were known for their brutality, and if you were an enemy of the Assyrians, you wouldn’t want to get caught up in preaching a message of repentance or whatever it is, the message that needs to be shared if you’re an enemy of Israel because who knows what’s going to happen to you. So, a lot of people might have assumed it’s because he was afraid. Later in the book, we’ll see maybe that’s not the case. But it plays again, off what people would have expected from the prophetic books.


Now, another reason why I would not put it in the history category, but put it in the satire category, or put it as different than these other prophetic books, is the literary style, the way it’s written. So, if you read carefully, and it’s only two pages, so you can read it carefully, you’ll see that there’s all kinds of fun stuff going on here. So, let’s talk about a few of, we’ll talk more about these fun things as we go through the book, but just for arguments sake, lets just talk about a few that help us know we’re in parable territory.

So, the first is we have these rhetorical devices like personification. So, if you remember back to tenth grade English when you learned about personification, that’s giving inanimate objects human-like qualities. So, we have this interesting thing in the first chapter, and this ties to the theme that we’ll see in the first chapter of who really is a God-fearing person, or even a God-fearing thing? So, for instance, in chapter one, the ship is given human verbs. So, the only time an inanimate object is given this idea of thinking about or reckoning is here in chapter one, verse five, when the ship reckons or thinks about breaking up. And then a few verses later, the sea stops its rage. And again, this word rage is often reserved for the rage of a person, a king, in 2 Chronicles. So, it stops its rage. So, in this way, in some personified way, the ship is afraid of God, the sea is enraged; and yet we have Jonah not really being bothered by all this. He’s asleep. But this personification gives us this stylistic sense, this is satire. It’s humorous. When you’re reading this, you’re thinking, what do you mean the ship is thinking about breaking up or considering breaking up? Ships don’t consider things, and the same with the sea.

We also have a lot of hyperbole, which again, sorry to bring you back to English class, but hyperbole is this exaggeration or way of exaggerating things. And the way that the book of Jonah does this, is everything is great, or everything is big, on a big scale. So, we see this throughout a lot in chapter one. So, Nineveh is a great city, and the way you give hyperbole in Hebrew is you double it. I’m oversimplifying here, but you double the word and that makes it, you know, exceedingly great, or things like that. So, we have Nineveh is a great city, and Yahweh hurls a great wind. There’s a great storm. The men don’t just throw the cargo, they hurl the cargo. They were extremely frightened, there’s a great storm. Jonah gets hurled into the sea. The men don’t just fear Yahweh, but they fear Yahweh greatly. Yahweh doesn’t appoint just a fish, but a great fish to swallow Jonah. And then, we still have Nineveh being described multiple times, even in chapter three as a great city three days journey. So, it’s a very localized tale that’s given these details that make it feel grand. And that’s something we would expect in a fiction story. So, the literary style, the humor, the irony, which we’ll talk about more.

Lastly, I just want to mention the structure of the story is very well crafted. It’s these four vignettes that we’ve identified mostly in the chapter of the English gets it a little wrong, I think. But we have kind of Jonah and the pagan sailors in chapter one, or Jonah running away from God’s call, and then we have Jonah in the fish in chapter two. We have Jonah proclaiming the message in chapter three, and then we have the aftermath of Jonah and the plant, or, you know, Jonah’s dialogue with God in chapter four. So, it’s very stylized, it’s very neat.

So, what kind of book is this? It’s satirical parable. That’s important, again, because too many people focus on this question – is Jonah telling us a historical account? We don’t know for certain whether it is or not, but all of these clues about genre tell us that it isn’t. And if we spend our time trying to prove that it is historically accurate or trying to prove how big our faith is by proving that a fish can swallow a grown man, my worry or my concern is that we actually miss the point of the book. To respect biblical books, we have to ask what kind of book it is. We would completely miss the impact and lessons of something like Aesop’s Fables if we spent all of our time and energy trying to prove that hares and tortoises can really talk, and they can really race each other. So, I don’t think, frankly, it matters one way or the other if you think the story actually took place or not, as long as you recognize that the value of the book isn’t about its historicity, but it’s in the message it’s trying to tell through this humorous, critical account of this character named Jonah.


So, I’m belaboring this because in my tradition, there was this implicit reading strategy. I don’t know if you’ve encountered this, but there was this implicit reading strategy when it came to the Bible that the most faithful reading is the one where the most miraculous thing happened. There was an example in, for me, that was poignant because it got pointed out quite a bit. That say, like, in Exodus, the Bible itself says that there was an east wind that came and pushed back the waters so that the Hebrews could cross on dry land. But if you pointed that out, it was almost like you had a lack of faith, right? The proper reading is that it wasn’t a natural occurrence at all, it was God’s actual hand in some supernatural way coming and pushing the water back where everyone would’ve just said, wow! You know, what is this hand coming down from heaven? That’s not actually even what the Bible itself says! The Bible says there’s an east wind that came. But these naturalistic ways of reading the Bible, we were, in my tradition, very reactive because a lot of “liberal scholars” were trying to de-mythologize and take all the miracles out of the Bible, which is fine. I think they got some of that wrong too there. You know, those scholars tended to have an agenda, a naturalistic agenda, but then this overreaction actually causes us to miss what the Bible is actually saying.

So, in the same way here in Jonah, I think to suggest that this is a parable and not history, for my tradition growing up, was because I would’ve lacked faith that God can have a fish swallow a man. But I actually just find that reading disrespectful to the Bible because the most faithful reading, I think, is the one that respects the original author, that does the due diligence to find out what kind of book they were trying to write. What are the context clues telling us? So, for me, reading it as satire says nothing about your faith, or what you think God is or isn’t capable of.

[Music begins] [Producers group endorsement] [Music ends]


Jared: Alright though, there’s one more thing I want to address before we jump into the details of the book related to reading it as history. Some people want to insist it’s historical because Jesus refers to Jonah in Matthew 12. So, in Matthew 12:38 and following, I forget how far it is, but Jesus mentions Jonah. And so, some people say, well it has to be a historical book if Jesus mentions it. So, in Matthew 12, I’m just gonna read a few of these verses. It says, “then some of the pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘teacher, we want to see a sign from you,’ and Jesus answered, ‘a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but none of you will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the son of man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.’”

Now again, not to get into Matthew 12, but if the whole point of Matthew 12 is to prove that Jonah is historically accurate, we miss the profound statement that Jesus is making about his generation and the people and religious leaders around him about repentance. But again, that’s beside the point. There’s just two quick points I want to make about this. The first one is it makes no sense to me why it needs to be historical just because Jesus mentions it. We do this all the time, right? We wish, we talk about wishing we could go on an adventure like Frodo Baggins. I have used in some of my work references to Michael Scott from The Office when I’m giving management advice. Isn’t that kind of the point of fiction? I think it’s, the point of fiction is to relate to our real lives in profound ways, so I’m not sure why Jesus would be exempt from using this thousands of years old way of relating fiction to our stories and our emotions and our communities and our societies and, I don’t, I don’t see the disconnect there.

But more importantly, I think the more conclusive reason why this doesn’t hold water for me is that Jesus himself references a historical figure in one of his parables. In Luke 16, we actually have the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus. So, if you don’t know the story, a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus, who lived outside the rich man’s gate are going about their business and they both die. And we have this in verse twenty-two and following. “The time came when the beggar dies, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried in Hades where he was in torment. He looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side, so he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things. But now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you, a great chasm has been set in place so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘then I beg you father, send Lazarus to my family,’” and on and on. He and Abraham continue to have a conversation. But the point is, we have Jesus here himself, creating a parable using a figure from the past and putting new words and deeds into his mouth here to make a theological point. So, Jesus himself is doing it. Now, some people might argue, no, what Jesus is doing is telling a historically accurate account of the afterlife. But that doesn’t seem, again, we have to go back to context clues, we have to do all this over again; doesn’t seem that’s the direction that this is pointing. Jesus is known for his parables, he tells all kinds of parables, doesn’t make any sense why this would be any different.

So, I think it’s fine that Jesus references Jonah. I don’t think it has to be historically accurate just because Jesus references it. He brings in Abraham into one of his parables. I think, in fact, I would say in these few hundred years around when Jesus was born, it was a pretty common occurrence that you would, because it gives authority, it gives some weight. It also makes a connection with your tradition, so that people recognize the characters in the stories. It was actually getting to be pretty common that you would take these characters and you would put new stories to them, and you would put words in their mouth, and they would give certain messages that you would want to share. I think that was a pretty common thing if you read other Second Temple Judaism works in the Second Temple period.


So, there we go. Alright, so just to round out our big picture stuff, let’s end just with a little word on who wrote the book, when, who was the historical Jonah that the author uses here, I would argue, as a foil for this work of fiction. We can tackle the author first because that’s an easy one. We have no idea. We don’t know who wrote the book of Jonah, I mean, for some reason, I don’t know why, but historically, when we want to attribute something to an author, we don’t know who wrote it, we like, pick the main character and think that they wrote it. So, you know, with Moses and the Torah, we think Moses wrote a lot of the Torah because it’s about Moses, but it seems interesting to me that that would be the case. Just because Jonah is the main character doesn’t mean Jonah wrote it. In fact, it would be weird, I think, that we would have the person who the main character be actually the author of the story. That seems, actually, strange to me. So, we have no idea who wrote Jonah.

Now when it was written is a little trickier because we can’t be certain, but we do have some ideas, at least, on when. You know, we can make some educated guesses. So, given the themes of the book, it was likely written after the exile, the Babylonian exile. So, after about 516 BCE, but we also know it was written before. So, it was written after the exile, but we also know it was written before about 190, because the book of Jonah is mentioned in another book called Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes. Which, this Ecclesiasticus was composed around 190. So, it was probably written between, say, 200 BCE and 500 BCE, is likely when it was written, kind of around the Persian period. Also note that when it was written is different than when it was set, right? It’s likely set at an earlier time than when it was written. And this is pretty simple for why scholars think that, and that is the characters, of course, Jonah son of Amittai, who was a real person according to the book of Kings. So, we have one mention of Jonah in the book of Kings, and he is only mentioned this one time. It’s in 2 Kings 14, and he’s associated with Jeroboam II, who turns out to be one of the most evil kings in Israelite history. So, you know, perhaps this association with Jeroboam along with the lack of any more details about Jonah given in our Bible is what led the author to pick him as the anti-hero in this satire.

So, I just wanted to read the only verse we have of Jonah in our Bible in 2 Kings 14:25. “He was the one who restored,” talking about Jeroboam now. Jeroboam was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel “from Lebo-hamath to the Dead Sea in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher.” There is then, two contexts that we’re talking about here briefly, and I don’t think it’s worth going to a lot of detail, but it’s worth mentioning that there are two contexts. So, we have the context in which the book of Jonah is written, but then there’s also the context in which the book is set, and that’s important, because we have to assume that people would have had the knowledge of what transpired and happened historically between when Jonah was set and when it was written.

So, we have a lot of background information that everyday people would at least be aware of. So, when the book was written, we talked about that, between 500 and 200, and this was a time of relative peace for Jews we have this context between 500 and 200, relative peace, this is after Cyrus has come and the Persian period begins after the Babylonians, so we have the Assyrians, who are the world emperors empire, and then we have the Babylonians, and then we have the Persians in about 539, Cyrus comes and brings, reestablishes Jewish people in the land, and then we have, around 330 or so, Alexander the Great takes over. So, we have this time of Greek rule, and then, of course, we have Roman rule after that. But that’s kind of when the book was written.


Now, when the book is set, it’s a very different historical context. So it’s just worth mentioning, this historical context of when the book was set, because we talked about 2 Kings, so there’s this king Jeroboam, who is in charge in Israel in the north. The same time there’s another king in the south called King Uzziah. Just so you remember that there were two kingdoms that split off from each other – there is Judah in the south, and then Israel in the North. They have two different kings, and Jeroboam II is in charge. Now it’s interesting, in 2 Kings, this, when he’s ruling, probably about 750 BCE or so, Israel is in a time of prosperity. And so, it’s just interesting. The only reason I bring it up is because Jonah is prophesying in a time of prosperity in 2 Kings when we’re increasing the borders and things are going well for God’s people, and there is a sense in which God will always be on our side, kind of regardless of our ethics and morals and obedience to God’s commands. And we see this in the book of Jeremiah, for example, when there’s this sense of prosperity and nothing can touch us, and God’s people are invincible because we are God’s people after all. And that’s important for the themes of the book of Jonah, that’s why I mention it. Now, if you were to go over to the book of Amos, Amos is prophesying about the same time as the historical Jonah is alive, the 750 or so period, and Amos paints a very different picture and says all of our ethical misdeeds and our disobedience for God’s commands is going to lead to a lot of destruction. And of course, within the next fifteen years, we have the Assyrians who come and start to dole out, we might say, God’s judgement. They start to deport the Israelites from the north, then by 722, the north has completely been sieged. And so, this juxtaposition of Amos and Jonah is helpful. Again, it may just point to why the author of Jonah picks Jonah to be the messenger of his message in the book.

But let’s jump to the book now of Jonah, and we start with the first chapter. And it’s so short, so I may even just read large portions here, because it really won’t take long. But I just want to point out a few things here in the book of Jonah, chapter one, if we’re talking about big themes. So, the first big theme here is about repentance and the relationship of God’s people to not God’s people. And for the sake of our time here, I’m going to use the words Jews and Gentiles to represent God’s people and not God’s people. I know in some ways, it depends on when we’re taking about historically framed, we could talk about Hebrews, we could talk about Israelites, we could talk about Jews, so I’m going to use the words Jews and Gentiles. Because that’s an important theme here in the book of Jonah is a relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and that’s important theme here in the first chapter. We get a little taste. We haven’t been introduced necessarily to this complexity quite yet in the book, but we get hints of it with the pagan sailors. And in relationship to the pagan sailors, we also have this Jonah’s relationship with God. And that’s represented through this descent that we’ll see all the way through chapter two, but begins here, and we see it in the first word of the Lord that God, the first word of the Lord given to Jonah.


So, in verse two, it says “go at once to Nineveh, that great city.” Now the word in Hebrew is actually two words for go. It’s arise and go, qum lekh, arise and go. So, it’s up. Get up and go. But in English, I think it’s clunky to have two different words, so it usually just says go at once, or go. But it’s technically arise and go, and this is important because we want to be mindful throughout these first two chapters of when things are going up and down. And I can let the cat out of the bag a little bit – this is the only time it goes up for quite some time. So, Jonah’s disobedience is leading him down the wrong path, literally geographically and then we’ll see metaphorically in chapter two. So, it’s arise and go, and we’re hopeful because in verse three, it actually begins with arise, or so he arose. So, it actually starts with another up word, and we get very, it’s a dramatic moment. So, Jonah got up just like in Hosea, it says, Hosea, go do this. And the next verse is, okay, so Hosea goes and does that. So, we expect that.

Okay, go at once to Nineveh, so we think the readers would think Jonah then gets up and goes, but it says he gets up and flees. And this is the dramatic moment. Oh no. Something is different. Something is awry. We’re surprised by this action of Jonah. So, he flees from the Lord’s service and he goes down. So that’s our first word, down to Joppa, to see if he can go on a ship to Tarshish. So, he goes, and then he goes down onto the boat, of course, and the Lord casts a mighty wind upon the sea, and a great tempest comes upon it, and the ship again is in danger of breaking up. It’s reckoning, it’s thinking about breaking up. It’s afraid of the tempest that God has brought. And in their fright, the sailors cry out, each to his own God. That’s important, because we have to establish that these are pagans. These aren’t Yahweh worshippers – yet. And they flung the ship’s cargo overboard to make it lighter for them.

All this chaos is happening, in the meantime, Jonah had gone down, there’s another word, gone down into the hold where he lay down and falls asleep. “The captain comes over and cries out, ‘how could you be sleeping so soundly? Up!’” So, there’s an up word. He’s calling Jonah to rise up, rise to the occasion. “You call upon your God. Perhaps the God will be kind to us, and we will not perish.” Now, that’s an interesting phrase, because later we’re going to be talking about, this brings up the theme of God’s kindness. What does God’s kindness mean and how does it relate to justice? And how is that fair and how does this all work? But it’s, again, the captain, who thinks that God will be kind and hopes that we will not perish. So, the captain is using Yahweh language, biblical language here. “Then the men said to one another, ‘let us cast lots, find out on whose account this misfortunate has come upon us.’” They cast the lots, of course, it falls to Jonah. “They say to Jonah, ‘tell us. What’s your business? Where have you come from?’ ‘I am a Hebrew, he says.’” Interesting use of language, Hebrew. He replied, he kind of calls us, hearkens us back to an earlier time to call himself a Hebrew. “I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven who made both sea and land.”

Now this is the beginning of a lot of creation language. Now there’s a lots of things that God could be known by, but here, it’s the one who made both sea and land. The God who’s in control of, of course, the stormy sea, but this is going to give us a clue to another theme. So, one theme is this relationship between Jews and Gentiles, right? But another theme that we’re going to see throughout the book of Jonah is God’s sovereignty. Who is really in control here? Who gets to control things? Who is in charge? And kind of like the book of Job, there’s gonna be a question. Well, it’s really gonna be God questioning. Who really is in charge here? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because God is sovereign. God is the one who made both land and sea. Once he said that, it says “the men were greatly terrified.” So at first, because of the sea being stormy and raging, they’re afraid. But when they hear who Jonah’s God is, they are greatly afraid and they ask him, what have you done? And when the men learn that he was fleeing from the service of the Lord, they said to him, what do we have to do to get this to calm down? Because it’s gotten more and more stormy. Heave me overboard, they say. Nevertheless, that’s a really important nevertheless verse 13, the men rode hard to regain the shore, but they couldn’t for the sea was growing more and more stormy about them. So again, these pagans are risking their own lives to save this stranger. They keep rowing because they didn’t want Jonah to die.


“Oh please,” they finally say to Yahweh. Now they’re talking directly to Yahweh. “Do not let us perish on account of this man’s life.” Don’t hold us guilty of killing an innocent person. Now, of course, Jonah’s innocence is questionable here, since he did flee from Yahweh, but it’s important, again, that we see this juxtaposition of the conversion throughout this process of the pagan sailors who don’t know Yahweh at all, they’re worshipping their own gods, and by the end, they are following God’s commands.

And then we end with, they offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and they made vows after they hurled Jonah over, and the sea calmed down. Now again, if you’re trying to make this historically accurate, it seems interesting because you offer sacrifices and make vows in the temple. You don’t do it necessarily, on a boat. I wouldn’t generally think that you would want to offer sacrifices with fire on a wooden boat in the middle of the sea, but if it’s not supposed to be historically accurate, and you’re just trying to make a theological point about the conversion of the pagan sailors and the deconversion of Jonah, Jonah’s descent. He’s going down and the pagan sailors are becoming Yahweh worshippers, and this is going to blow minds. How can it be? How can it be that the Jew is acting very non-Jewish, and the Gentile is acting very Jewish and blurring the lines here. And this gives us again, a preamble of where we’re going when we talk about Nineveh.

So, that’s the first chapter. We have the deconversion here, and the descent of Jonah, and the conversion of the pagans. So, they offer sacrifices to the Lord and they make vows, which, that gives us a little foretaste of what Jonah’s gonna do in his repentance. In chapter two, we have Jonah doing the same thing in chapter two where, at the end of his prayer, he says, I will sacrifice to you what I have vowed, I will perform. Meaning, he’s reconverted, he’s gonna offer sacrifice and make vows. And we’ll talk about Jonah’s reconversion next time, but I wanted to point out, it’s the same language. So, it’s blurring these lines between Jews and Gentiles and what it means to have God’s favor and what it means to be God’s people, and this could be pretty upsetting for people who maybe have a certain way of thinking about what it means to be God’s people and how we then treat other people, not even yet to our enemies, we’re just simply talking about the pagans at this point.

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Jared: Alright, well hopefully this has been a helpful introduction to the book of Jonah. Next time, we’re gonna jump into chapter two, but we’ll just see where it goes. We’ll see how long we want to take. Maybe just a two-part series, maybe three, we’ll see. But I hope this has been good introducing these themes and also talking about what kind of book the book of Jonah is and how we can use the things we talked about here when we’re reading other books of the Bible as well. Alright, thank you so much, we’ll see ya next time.

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Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.